The new administration has an opportunity to place US policy in the Middle East on a new plateau, a position that will contribute to greater long-term peace and stability as well as serve the national interest. Critical issues that affect both short and long-term US interests are the Arab-Israeli conflict/peace process, democratization in the Middle East, and US understanding of Islam in Muslim politics and society.
Both foreign and domestic political and social realities make greater awareness and sensitivity to Muslim sensibilities strategically important. The 1.2 billion Muslims of the world make Islam the second largest religion globally and second or third largest in Europe and America. From the vantage point of domestic politics, Islam is the third largest and soon to be second largest religion in America. While the American Muslim community will not in the foreseeable future have the same resources and political clout as the American Jewish community, its presence and potential impact on local and congressional politics will increasingly be significant.
Despite lofty American statements of intention, too often previous administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, have been more content with policy statements that remain platitudes rather than principles for implementation. Though the US speaks of its even-handed approach to peace in Israel/Palestine, its U.N. voting record-as well as its abstentions, even when the vast majority of the Security Council has voted otherwise-have consistently and uncritically supported Israeli interests.
Similarly, overwhelming congressional support for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem-and statements by President Bill Clinton that depart from his earlier objections-despite U.N. resolutions regarding the return of lands seized by Israel in the 1967 war, further erodes US credibility as an honest broker. The US cannot afford to put itself beyond the world community or the U.N. without jeopardizing its political as well as moral leadership.
As your administration appoints key officials to address major areas of concern, your credibility will hinge on perception as well as reality. Thus, in contrast to the second Clinton term and team, you can avoid a serious pitfall. The United States can not afford to have an overwhelming number of its key players in the National Security Council and the State Department who handle the Arab-Israeli conflict or other critical Middle East crises that come from an American Jewish background-any more than it would be appropriate for them to be overwhelmingly Arab-American or American Muslim in background. One would be stunned to find any government in Europe or America appointing a preponderant number of its officials handling Greek-Turkish or Pakistani-Indian relations with descendants from one of the very communities involved.
Islam remains a powerful political symbol and ideology throughout much of the Muslim world. The failure or impotence of Arab nationalism and other secular ideologies has enhanced the continued vitality of religion in Muslim politics. If political Islam-the implementation of Islam from above by governments in Islamic Republics such as Afghanistan and Sudan -- has failed,recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Iran show significant progress, a process that should be encouraged despite the current political backlash from more militant factions.
The more important and pervasive reality today, from North Africa to Southeast Asia, is the continued Islamization of Muslim societies from below and the desire of mainstream Islamic movements, like other opposition groups, to participate in the political system. Although Muslim countries won their wars of independence decades ago, most are only today being forced to face the culture war, the struggle to define or redefine the relationship of religion and culture to national identity. Algeria, Turkey and Egypt are but a few of the Muslim societies caught in the midst of this struggle as the worldviews and interests of secular oriented elites clash with those of modern educated but more Islamically oriented elites. We see similar conflicts involving Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism as well as Islam in Israel, India, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, and Russia, and Central Asia. The role of Islam as a source of identity and values, social activism and mobilization, is visible in non-government organizations, professional associations, political parties, courts and their legal decisions. Alongside the violent extremism of the few is the moderate, non-violent position of the many. Moderates want to see societies placed on a more Islamic path, one that is compatible with modernization and relations with the West.
Therefore, the US must avoid slipping into a Cold War mentality that allows authoritarian regimes to justify their repression of all opposition as a defense against "Islamic fundamentalism" or religious extremists. The US has had a public relations problem with many Muslims who charge that America practices a double standard in its promotion of democracy. While advocating democratization in Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa, we are often seen as ambivalent, if not silent, when mukhabarat (security) states suppress advocates of democratization in the name of containing radical movements. US policy must be based upon a country-by-country assessment and the criteria used-whether self-determination, political participation and human rights-must be applied equally not only to established governments but also to opposition movements.
Today the Middle East, like much of the Muslim world, suffers under dictators and economic stagnation. These conditions can ultimately produce challenges for the West, not all of which will be ideological or Islamist in character. We should be propelled by and respond to events not religions, as was the case in Kosovo. The US does not need a position on Islam, so much as one on political, social, and economic change where Muslims live. The threat to the US will not come from a clash of civilizations, but from the socioeconomic and political realities that breed radicalism. This is what requires US attention and where policy-making in your new administration should begin.
John L. Esposito is the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and a University Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University, as well as a consultant to the Department of State. His books include: The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Islam and Politics, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, and Political Islam: Revolution; Radicalism or Reform?